Maria Tello has always pushed her limits. Whether it’s in her job, her hobbies, or her health, she loves a challenge. When her personal trainer suggested she start competitive bodybuilding, she said it sounded like a “fun idea.” She won first place and two third places at her first competition in April.

“I truly believe in the idea of not being stagnant in life and never settling,” said Tello, who lives in Edcouch. “When you challenge yourself, life becomes a little more exciting. When you have a goal, you continue to grow as a person.”

Tello, a 46-year-old professor at South Texas College for more than 20 years, took home trophies in the novice, open and masters category at Dropzone Physique Showdown in Stafford, Texas on April 21. She will compete again at San Antonio’s Alamo Showdown Classic in November.

She said she has always been athletic but began more intense exercise four years ago. Before taking up bodybuilding as a hobby, she consulted her family.

“I actually asked my husband if it was OK if I do this, because I realized that it is not the kind of sport you can do if you don’t have your family’s support,” Tello said. “It’s absolutely, hands-down, an extreme sport that requires a lot of sacrifices.”

She said her husband saw how dedicated she had become to her health and fitness in recent years, and he agreed she should do it when she asked him. She said it seemed like “the next logical step” to him.

“My wife is a very unique woman,” said Al Hernandez, Tello’s husband. “Most Mexican-American women are not even into the physical part of being healthy, especially down here. She’s in a club of very few women.”

However, Tello is well aware that the piling responsibilities of being a working mom can get overwhelming. She emphasized the importance of being organized, which she said is the key to fulfilling her roles as a wife, mother and professor.

Perhaps the most complex of those responsibilities is her meals, which come seven times a day and are based on what she refers to as a macro diet. Her competition coach gives her specific amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat to consume every day. She buys the exact amount of groceries needed according to her detailed list for that week, which includes the meals she will make and their nutrition values.

To keep it interesting, she gives herself one cheat meal a week, usually on the weekends during family time. Tello said her cheat meals always include dessert, with her favorite being those giant cookies in the skillet with a scoop of ice cream on top.

“I’m learning how to appreciate everything I’m putting in my body because I get it in limited portions,” Tello said. “Competition prep has made me more resourceful, more appreciative and less wasteful.”

While her groceries are about $60 a week, she said bodybuilding itself can be an expensive sport. Her nutrition supplements range from $15 to $75 a month, in addition to paying her personal trainer and competition coach. Then there’s the custom bikini for her shows, the membership and competition fees, travel expenses, a spray tan, hair, makeup and more – in the end, it’s hundreds of dollars.

Despite the high price tag, the money is not her focus. She sees bodybuilding as an investment in her health – she would rather spend this money on protein than diabetes medication.

“My goal is to not ever have to get on drugs to keep me healthy,” Tello said. “When I’m 80 years old I want to go to the doctor and they’ll say, ‘Wow, you don’t need anything.’”

This reasoning is why Tello only does “natural” competitions – those that require a drug and polygraph test, plus a urine test for the winners. Furthermore, the supplements she takes do not give her a competitive edge the way steroids do.

“I made this decision because I wanted to be healthy, so it made no sense to inject myself with drugs that enhance my muscles and will ruin my hormones later down the line,” she said. “Everyone chooses what they believe is right for them, but I chose not to go that route.”

Even though she differs on this subject from some others that compete, she said there is still a strong support network among those in the bodybuilding community. Being so dedicated to a sport surrounded by misconceptions means the people in it tend to have an instant understanding of each other.

She said backstage at the competitions can be hectic, but everyone finds time to help secure each other’s bikinis, lend each other weights, and cheer as each one walks the stage.

“When I get to these shows, these women have put themselves through the same sacrifices I have and it’s like a natural bond that happens,” Tello said. “We’re all there showing our hard work. Every girl up there has gone through what you’ve gone through and it’s very uniting.”

Tello noted that along with the tight community, there’s also some strange things bodybuilders do for the sake of competing.

Getting a spray tan, for example, is Tello’s least favorite part of the shows. It’s done the night before, with her completely naked, and she can’t shower once it’s on. She can’t use deodorant either as it will turn the skin green. She has to pee in a cup to avoid streaks down her legs. And another thing: the bikinis are so small that they have to be glued on to avoid any movement.

“They’re usually glued on by the coach’s helper,” she said. “Modesty really goes out the window because her helper is her son, and he’s essentially gluing my butt cheeks together.”

Tello knows this would make most people uncomfortable, so she is grateful that her husband doesn’t seem fazed by any of it despite her gym and competitions being male-dominated.

Although he doesn’t typically like much muscle on women, he acknowledged that it’s about his wife, not him.

“She looks good and likes what she does, so that’s good for me,” Hernandez said. “I get jokes all the time but I go along with it. I say ‘If we go out and we get in a fight, my wife will take care of it.’”

“I still need him to help me open a can of pickles,” Tello said with a laugh.

With the strict diet, the strange behind-the-scenes, the expenses and the time-consuming regimen, Tello said it would be impossible if she did not have her family supporting her. Although seeing her body transform every week is exciting, the real thrill is having her family along for the journey.

“Hands down, my favorite part is when I’m up there and I hear my son and husband yelling, ‘You got this!’ and ‘You look great!’” Tello said. “I feel that I’m making them proud. I feel like a wonderful mom and a wonderful wife. It just can’t get any better than that.”